In Virtual Readings, Less (a Lot Less) Is Sometimes More

With minimal rehearsal and production values, online events are becoming a distinct (and worthy) new genre of theater.


By Jesse Green

For the first 50 minutes of “Gloria,” my stomach was in knots. Again.

I had already seen the play, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, at its Vineyard Theater premiere in 2015. Despite its amusing opening dialogue — the sour-witty banter of editorial assistants at an upscale magazine — I was convinced by subtle quirks in its tone and pacing that something bad was going to happen. When it did, at the end of Act I, the staging was so vicious and efficient, involving lights, sound, movement and all the powers of modern production, that I nearly blacked out.

Surely a second encounter with “Gloria” years later could not have the same effect on me, I thought, and yet there I was watching it the other night, my teeth gritted in dread. This, even though (a) I knew what was going to happen; (b) I was under a blanket at home; and (c) the production was remote, unstaged and devoid of special effects.

“It’s only a reading,” I kept telling myself. “It’s only a reading.”

But “only” no longer applies. Thanks to pandemic restrictions on live performance and the expense and difficulty of mounting full productions online, readings have become a big part of the theatergoer’s quarantine diet. At first I balked at that development; what was theater if not a live, staged experience?

But with “Gloria” and several others recently, I’ve begun to feel that readings — virtual ones, anyway — have crossed a line: They are no longer fossils of an old kind of theater but early forms of a new one. With their own strengths and weaknesses, they amount to a separate if related genre, one that doesn’t look like it’ll be going away even once social distancing does.

Some people won’t welcome that news, or regard it as news at all. There have likely been readings since Aeschylus first showed up at a rehearsal hall with a giant chalice of coffee to watch actors stumble through “The Oresteia.” Usually invitation-only affairs, they are meant to give artists a sense of how the work they are doing might fare in front of a friendly, nonpaying audience.

I’ve been to quite a few of those, all pretty boring. The actors sit on stools in a bare rehearsal studio, flipping through scripts in binders on music stands while the stage directions are spoken aloud with as little expressiveness as possible so as not to distract from the “action.”

Virtual readings do have a few things in common with that. Though paper scripts have been replaced by screens, you often see the actors scanning them anxiously for lines. The Zoom environment is usually as bare as those studios, and if there’s cute wallpaper I usually want to tear it down. The stage directions remain comically bland; the best virtual readings render them as captions or dispense with them altogether.

Despite those similarities, “Gloria” and the dozens of other examples of the form I’ve seen in the last 10 months are as different from traditional readings as they are from traditionally staged productions in how they shape dramatic material and how they work on the audience. Also in who that audience is. Generally either free or low-cost, and easily available to anyone with a computer or smartphone, virtual readings can be seen by many more people, of many different stripes.

That’s no small thing; mainstream theaters have for decades sought new audiences without offering them much reason to be found. Developmental virtual readings — to name one of three main subtypes I’ve discerned in the emerging genre — have been especially successful at putting more diverse material before the public’s eyes and, in the process, helping audiences feel engaged in a process that used to be kept from them, often deliberately.

At MCC Theater, developmental virtual readings are called LiveLabs; six new one-act plays, beginning with “Frankie & Will” last May, have been produced as part of the series. Two more, by Mfoniso Udofia and Susan Soon He Stanton, arrive in February.

“Frankie & Will” starred Michael Urie as Shakespeare and Ryan Spahn as his put-upon apprentice, riding out quarantine in a plague-struck London that was somehow also New York today. For audiences seeking some levity in a very dark moment, “Frankie & Will,” which could never have made it to a live stage so fast, was a welcome diversion, and a witty calling card for the playwright Talene Monahon.

Aziza Barnes, Halley Feiffer, Matthew Lopez, C.A. Johnson and Omar Vélez Meléndez are the other playwrights to whom LiveLabs has so far offered a casual, low-impact opportunity to test new ideas.

There was something to like in each of their one-acts, most of which will remain available online indefinitely. Feiffer’s “Between the Two Humps,” a spoof of the biblical Mary and Joseph, featured “live” design by Clint Ramos that for once enhanced the storytelling, while also matching the makeshift Zoom aesthetic. Barnes’s supernatural thriller “Pues Nada” — following up on her terrific “BLKS,” seen in a live MCC production in 2019 — exploited the psychological possibilities of the electronic medium while remaining emphatically a play.

MCC has also been active in another subcategory of the new genre. Call this one the starry benefit virtual reading, in which stage celebrities and Hollywood drop-ins perform a classic — or a play in the process of becoming one. These readings are not much fancier in terms of production values than the developmental kind, but there’s a higher glamour quotient, often put to good use. MCC’s reading of “Beirut” last April was headlined by Marisa Tomei and Oscar Isaac; in December, “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play” featured Cynthia Erivo and Gabourey Sidibe.

“School Girls,” by Jocelyn Bioh, was a hoot onstage in 2017, telling its story about colorism and cultural imperialism in a Ghanaian high school in part through movement and composition. A virtual reading cannot reproduce that, especially when actors are in different places, merely pretending to look at one another. But it can bring you closer to each character’s eyes, creating a more interior but just as powerful experience.

That was even more true for “Beirut,” a play by Alan Bowne that imagines how an AIDS-like plague (Bowne died of the disease in 1989) might create a subclass of human beings on New York’s Lower East Side. In 1987, when it was first produced, “Beirut” struck me as sensationalistic and underdeveloped, even at just an hour; now, thanks to the camera’s intimacy and the lack of stagy distraction (and quasi-pornographic sex), it seems more serious if not more complete.

That’s also been my reaction to many of the benefit readings offered by Spotlight on Plays, which begins its second season in March. Its first season, benefiting the Actors Fund, included David Mamet’s “November,” with John Malkovich and Patti LuPone, and “Love Letters,” with Bryan Cranston and Sally Field.

My favorite so far, though, has been “Barbecue,” by Robert O’Hara, the raucous comedy in which a troubled family is played in alternating scenes by white and Black actors, leaving the audience to consider the difference. Laurie Metcalf and S. Epatha Merkerson, sharing the central role of a woman leading an intervention, gave performances just about indistinguishable from fully lived-in ones, even on minimal rehearsal. Seeing actors clear impossible hurdles like that is a thrill of its own — one only available in readings.

Neither Metcalf nor Merkerson was in the original 2015 Public Theater production of “Barbecue” — unlike Tomei, who co-starred, before “My Cousin Vinny” made her famous, in the original version of “Beirut.” In that sense, Tomei’s repeat (and now richer) performance, available through Jan. 31, puts the production halfway into my third category of virtual reading: the nostalgic reunion.

Standout examples of this subgenre include Martyna Majok’s “Ironbound,” Will Arbery’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” and Lydia R. Diamond’s “Toni Stone,” all featuring their original Off Broadway casts and all presented on the Play-PerView platform.

Reunions like these may be the best arguments for virtual readings as a genre worthy of attention even after the pandemic. For one thing, they are records of the first interpretations of important works. They sometimes capture the originators of roles with greater intensity than onstage, not only because there is no visual distraction but also because the actors themselves, returning to the material after a time away from it, have a deeper understanding than they had at the start.

To see April Matthis, without benefit of sets or costumes, take a second thwack at Toni Stone, the first woman to play in a professional baseball game, is to marvel at how great acting is not just an interpretive but a creative art. Having made a human from nothing but words, Matthis does so again, even better.

Likewise for audiences. Virtual readings let you rethink and deepen what you saw, but now on your own time — and whether you pay $5 or $100, you’re seeing it from the same perfect seat.

Which brings me back to “Gloria”: a better play on Zoom, I think, than it ever was onstage. Is that because its violence, which was rendered realistically in the theater, is more powerful when handled abstractly? Or because close-ups thawed the live play’s otherwise icy surface?

Another great advantage of virtual readings is that even though you invite them into your home, you always have recourse, if necessary, to a pause button and a blanket. If for that alone, let’s keep them coming.

Some Ways to Watch

MCC Theater

Beirut,” starring Marisa Tomei and Oscar Isaac, is available through Jan. 31. LiveLabs readings, including “Pues Nada” by Aziza Barnes and the upcoming “On Love” by Mfoniso Udofia, are available to subscribers indefinitely.

Play-PerView

This platform for benefit readings, many of them reunions, has so far offered 35 plays, most available for just four days. Next up, on Feb. 6, is Billy Porter’s semi-autobiographical “While I Yet Live”; and, on Feb. 13, “Revenge Porn,” by Carla Ching, about the ripples of shame that spread out from a ruined marriage.

Spotlight on Plays

Previous offerings in this series of benefit readings are no longer available, but the new season that starts in February includes seven plays by women that will each be available for four days. Among them are “Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous” by Pearl Cleage, “Ohio State Murders” by Adrienne Kennedy and “The Baltimore Waltz” by Paula Vogel.

Vineyard Theater

The Vineyard’s series of benefit reunion readings that began with “Gloria” continues on March 16 with a two-week run of “Brutal Imagination,” a 2002 play by Cornelius Eady. The play, once again starring Joe Morton and Sally Murphy, spins the case of Susan Smith, who drowned her children but blamed an imaginary Black man, into a poetic and musical meditation on race.

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